Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
It’s been said by champions past that even more difficult than getting to the top is staying there, defending the title against an endless pool of hungry suitors.
UFC bantamweight strap-holder TJ Dillashaw knows of the ascension to the throne, having claimed the 135-pound belt in May. Now, as he’s set to make his first title defense, a rematch against Renan Barao, Dillashaw will have to see if he has what it takes to remain atop the division.
Just three months ago, no one was giving Dillashaw much of a chance…
The title fight against Barao was booked when the UFC desperately needed a headliner after a main event between Chris Weidman and Lyoto Machida was rescheduled on account of the middleweight champion’s double knee surgery. Dillashaw wasn’t even the promotion’s first choice for the slot—that distinction went to Raphael Assuncao, who declined the offer due to injury. But he was serviceable, a warm enough body that could at least last a round or two against Barao, who was riding a 33-fight unbeaten streak at the time.
Having never even fought on the main card of a Pay Per View event, Dillashaw was expected to lose, quickly. However, TJ had different plans, putting together a near-perfect performance, landing a game-changing knock-down blow in the first round before finishing Barao in the fifth with a head kick and a bevvy of punches.
It was called one of the greatest upsets in MMA history, and suddenly, a kid from Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male, who was just four years into his mixed martial arts’ career, having come up through The Ultimate Fighter, was carrying around the sport’s most coveted hardware.
But how will the champ perform in the rematch? Especially without the element of surprise that aided his meteoric rise.
For starters, Dillashaw will have to accept that Barao will be hungrier and more persistent than in their first encounter; the champ will be facing a more dangerous opponent, one guided by revenge and vindication. By many accounts, Barao took Dillashaw lightly at UFC 173, and it was rumored that he was under the weather on account of a difficult weight cut.
Dillashaw will also need to show some new skill and technique in their rematch at the Sleep Train Arena.
Prior to the previous bout, it was widely believed that Dillashaw would rely on his wrestling prowess to take the fight to the mat, where he would attempt a ground-and-pound attack and control the match from the top position. But Dillashaw went with a completely different game plan, electing instead to stand and trade with Barao. TJ demonstrated phenomenal, fast, and slick footwork, competing at a higher speed and pace than Barao. And the strategy paid off, as Dillashaw landed punches in bunches and kicks with aplomb, all the while evading Barao’s best attempts at offense.
But it would be naïve to employ the same tactics twice. Barao is too good of a competitor, and his coach Andre Pederneiras, who runs Rio de Janeiro’s Nova Uniao team, is too smart and methodical to fall for the same tricks again. It’s one of those “fool me once” type things…
With a new game plan in place, one that is likely to involve more takedowns and grinding clinch work against the fence, how will Dillashaw perform as the champ?
Fighters on the up are generally desperate to make a mark on the MMA world, performing with the type of recklessness that leads to fantastic, jaw-dropping finishes. But once there’s a belt on the line, athletes tend to take a safer approach, fighting not to lose, rather than going for the win. Georges St-Pierre was one such champion, taking his final seven title defenses by decision. But with the entire nation of Canada behind him, St-Pierre was absolved of the criticism that accompanies a decision-friendly style. Dillashaw will not be spared ridicule if he becomes the type of titleholder that doesn’t finish fights.
Also playing a factor on Saturday night will be the location of UFC 177, Sacramento, Dillashaw’s adoptive hometown. Will TJ shine under the bright lights of the California capital? Or will he freeze from the pressure that goes with fighting in front of friends and family?
Roughly one year ago, UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis took the title from Benson Henderson via first round armbar in his hometown of Milwaukee. It was a transcendent moment for the city to have a world champion earn his stripes in front of the hometown crowd, just as St-Pierre earned his second title at UFC 83, exacting revenge on Matt Serra in his native Montreal.
In a title fight, every little detail can affect an athlete’s outlook. There was minimal pressure for Dillashaw to fly out to Las Vegas and compete as an underdog at the MGM Grand. But as the champion, competing in his city of residence, TJ will need to summon increased mental toughness in order to keep the same loose and relaxed demeanor.
Clearly, there are many factors in play to see if TJ Dillashaw can deliver a performance on par with his previous offering. He was so free and light on his feet, living in the moment; the whole vibe of the UFC 173 main event was so surreal, a true David-versus-Goliath story.
And while those upsets and giant-slaying flashes are the thing of legend, Dillashaw needs to put his previous successes behind him and focus on an even loftier challenge this time around.
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